Seeking a Chance, Not a Handout : In many ways, immigrants are the most American among us

Anayeli Orea's words are simple, but they echo 300 years of history and should shame those who caricature immigrants with slothful stereotypes. "Immigrant people, they want to have opportunities," the 15-year-old freshman at James Monroe High School told Times reporter Frank Williams. Opportunities. Not handouts. For just the chance to succeed, Anayeli's family immigrated two years ago to Van Nuys from their home in Mexico City.

Her story reflects those of immigrants throughout time. And her idealistic words, her faith in hard work and slow success deflate the persuasiveness of anti-immigration rhetoric about illegal moochers. She instead embodies the findings of a recent Harvard study about the attitudes of immigrant students. According to the study, immigrant Latino students consider school a far more important part of life than their American-born peers do. It's their key to a better future. For instance, 84% of the newcomers interviewed for the study said school was "the most important thing" in their lives, compared to just 40% of white students.

In a round-table discussion convened by The Times, Anayeli and three other Monroe students--all of them recent immigrants--agreed with those findings. And, really, they are not surprising. The same thing happened for generations of European and Asian immigrants in years past. What has changed, though, are the pressures. Gangs. Television. A shrinking job pool. These students have known hardships and losses that natives twice their age will never endure. Yet they remain refreshingly optimistic. The odds are stacked against them, but they want to try anyway. In that way, they are the most American among us. They believe that the future holds promise and that they can make a difference--ideals upon which the American experience is based.

Hatred and distrust are easy when immigrants are painted as sneaky sponges who suck the federal Treasury dry. But young people like Anayeli, who serves in her school's ROTC unit, should shame the peddlers of anti-immigrant diatribes. Nearly all of us are immigrants. Some are just more recent than others.

To deny Anayeli--and the hopeful thousands like her--the opportunity to live a life of value and service is to deny ourselves the opportunity to be the kind of society we should strive toward. Like the Statue of Liberty, Anayeli may be foreign-born. But she is no less American.

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